You’re teaching a lesson at church, and you know questions are the best way to get the class involved. But it seems like every time you ask a question, all you get is blank stares, a few sniffs, and some uncomfortable shifting from your students. Now what? The new Teaching in the Savior’s Way manual explains that “The Savior asked questions that invited learners to think and feel deeply about the truths He taught. Our questions can similarly inspire learners to ponder gospel truths and find ways to apply them in their lives.” Here are a few tips, taken from a variety of Church resources, that might help liven up your class and generate more discussion:
1) Ask simple, straightforward questions.
Has someone ever asked you a question, but by the time they get to the end of it, you can’t answer it because you don’t remember the beginning? Questions that have a long explanation or introduction frequently get lost in translation and are difficult to answer. Try to keep your questions as focused as you can while still leaving room for discussion.
Top tip: Brainstorm a list of questions that you can draw from, or do it just to help you practice formulating your questions in a simple way. That way your questions don’t become convoluted in the pressure of teaching.
2) Ask questions before you read a scripture or quote.
How many times have you been in a class where the teacher has asked for a volunteer to read a scripture, and once they’re done reading, the teacher asks, “what do these verses tell us?” Awkward silence.
Either I have to go back and reread the scripture, or I have to try and guess what the teacher wants me to get from the scripture. There is a more effective approach to prepare readers and students to know what they’re reading about that can generate more active thought and discussion. For example, teachers can ask the class to listen to the next scripture and watch for ways that Ether demonstrated faith. That way, students don’t feel like there is only one answer, plus they will know what to look for or pay attention to the first time.
Top tip: If you have access to a whiteboard or chalkboard, you might consider writing the question on the board so class members can reference it while you are reading. This is especially helpful if you have a long set of scriptures.
Top tip from Teaching in the Savior’s Way: “Don’t be afraid of silence. Good questions take time to answer. They require pondering, searching, and inspiration. The time you spend waiting for answers to a question can be a sacred time of pondering. Avoid the temptation to end this time too soon by answering your own question or moving on to something else. Tell learners that you will give them time to ponder before they answer.”
3) Ask questions that are inclusive.
While this tip doesn’t come from a manual, it’s one that I’ve observed works really well for me as a student. Teachers are in charge of helping unify the class. This can be challenging when every class member comes from a different background and has different life experiences. Try asking questions that give the opportunity for a variety of answers. Sometimes this simply means broadening the question.
This meant a lot to me when I was a graduated, working person in wards full of students attending the same school we held church meetings in. Having someone say something as simple as “what did you learn from getting a higher education?” instead of “what have you learned from attending this school?” has made me feel more included and willing to participate—like my answer is still important and relevant even if my situation isn’t the same as everyone else’s. Obviously, you can’t account for every circumstance or be so generic that nobody knows what the question is, but by simply finding ways to recognize in your statements and questions that not everyone is the same, you might be able to connect and encourage engagement with more of your students.
Top tip from Preach My Gospel: “Review your lesson plan . . . write one question for each of the major principles outlined in your plan. Then review your questions to see whether they are in harmony with what is taught in [the lesson]. Next, answer each question as though you were a [class member]. Revise your questions as needed. Share your questions with [someone else]. . . . Discuss how these questions may invite the Spirit and help [class members] learn the gospel.”
4) Ask questions that help students comprehend and apply stories and principles, not just repeat them.
If you ask a yes or no question, you’re going to get a yes or no answer. If you ask for a fact from the story, you’ll get blank stares or the fact from the story. If you want to generate discussion among class members, try to avoid questions with obvious answers.
Help class members dig deeper. Give them an opportunity to share a personal experience that can connect classmates with the topic or scripture that was just shared. In my observation, most students want to comment when they feel they have an answer or an insight others do not—something they can add to the conversation that is different. If you ask a question that anybody can answer, however, this sometimes discourages students from feeling like they have something new to contribute and decreases participation.
Top tip from the teaching guidebook on lds.org: “Ask questions that help the class members think about the gospel principle and how it applies in their lives. Thought-provoking questions often begin with ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ . . . For example, in teaching a lesson about centering our lives on the Savior, you might ask questions like the following:
“’What does it mean to build on the rock of Christ?’
“’How have you been blessed as you have built your life on the rock of Christ?’”
5) Ask students what questions they have.
Some of the best discussions I’ve had during a lesson have come because of a question from a student. Learning involves giving and receiving. Though there may be many times when nobody has a question, pausing occasionally to ask, “What questions do you have about this topic?” can open up opportunities to connect with the students and talk about topics in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them.
Top tip: Even teachers shouldn’t listen to respond. Instead of trying to figure out how to fit your student’s comment in with what you wanted to say next, truly stop and listen to them—if you’ve prepared, the Spirit will guide you. From the teaching guidebook on lds.org, “If someone asks you a question that you cannot answer, ask the class members to help you answer it, or tell the person that you will find the answer for next time.”